by Mike Snow - Orleans Racing
LAS VEGAS – As hard as it is to imagine there is a common thread that will bind Martinsville, Virginia and Las Vegas, Nevada this weekend. The thread is just one of the strengths that the Orleans Racing team will rely on as it competes in this weekend’s Kroger 250 Craftsman Truck Series event.
A significant portion of Orleans Racing’s support team hails from the sleepy burg of Martinsville, Va., which is located on the border of Virginia and North Carolina. And to a person, each of the four east coast transplants brings an “A” game to the table.
Meeting Orleans Racing’s Martinsville Gang we find Travis Sharp, car chief of Brendan Gaughan’s #77 Jasper Engine Dodge. Calvin Gravely, a diversity member of the NASCAR family, the tire specialist for Steve Park’s #62 Orleans Hotel Dodge. Providing support from Las Vegas will be Josh Hypes and Jason Watkins, both 20 year olds who work for Kroyer Racing Engines, the engine supplier that powers Orleans Racing entries each event.
Each of these men has made the move from the small town on the east that is hosting this weekend’s event to the vibrant city of Las Vegas, Nevada. And each has made a stop at the going-est training center for NASCAR Racing, Patrick Henry Community College.
All the men were moved to Las Vegas because of their specialized talent, and each has turned out to be quite a find.
Sharp, under very limited supervision, takes direction from crew chief Billy Wilburn to prepare the Jasper Engines and Transmissions Dodge each event. Wilburn understands what he’s got in Sharp, and knows that the truck will be prepared to his exacting standards.
“I started driving race cars when I was 12 with my dad (Mike Sharp),” says the 24-year-old Sharp. “We won a bunch of races by the time I was 13. He went to work for Petty and Gibbs and I started driving Late Models on my own.
“I think my first job was at Ridgeway with Jeff Hensley when they had the Hensley race team. I’ve been to Petty’s too. It’s been a wild road. I’m 24 but I’ve probably got the racing experience of a 40-year old. I’ve been doing it my whole life. I’ve won races in just about every division you could possibly win. I’ve done the hard time. I’ve worked three jobs just to pay for tires to race and now I’m working on them.”
Gravely, who is always showing his infectious smile -- and is more than willing to share his quick wit, keeps the tires on Steve Park’s Orleans Dodge in top shape when at the track. He also is responsible for all tires and wheels housed at the Orleans Racing shops, and makes sure that both teams have what they need for testing sessions.
Gravely made the move to racing after the mills that employed him for 15 years closed and moved their operations elsewhere.
“My way out is kind of unique,” offers Gravely. “The reason I say unique is because I grew up in a town where you could have a job this week and if you wanted another job you just went down the street. Ten years ago Martinsville had more jobs than you could count.
“When those jobs went south, I started looking at what I could do to change the same old, same old. I was a mechanic in the mills before they closed. How could I use this? What could I do? Honestly with no jobs people weren’t really doing large projects on cars such as engine rebuilding and things of that nature. So I looked into motorsports.”
Continuing Gravely added, “Patrick Henry Community College was starting to advertise a lot and the company I worked for did licensing for motorsports apparel. It was a lucrative business so I thought about it and decided to see what it was all about.”
Asked if he thought the training would pay-off as well as it had, Gravely emotionally responded, “No. I did not think that I would be this far along. I didn’t. But it’s true what they say. If you want something bad enough, you can achieve it.”
Speaking about the talent he’s found at Patrick Henry Community College Kevin Kroyer says, “We’re always in need of good employees out here at Kroyer Racing Engines and the Orleans Racing team. Through a connection that we have with Dodge and Dodge Motorsports, we got a hold of Joey Arrington and the Arrington Academy, which is part of the Patrick Henry Community College Motorsports Technology Program and let Joey know that we were looking for good, quality people both at Kroyer Racing Engines and at Orleans Racing. Being here in Las Vegas we’re a in a little bit of a motorsports island if you will and there are not a whole lot of people to draw from. A lot of people I’ve had to bring in from around the country basically to hire good, quality people here at Kroyer Racing Engines.
“Joey Arrington sent out four of the top graduates of the Patrick Henry Community College Motorsports Technology Program last year and did an on-site training last June toward the end of their graduating class and actually two of those boys, Jason Watkins and Josh Hypes, we ended up hiring out here,” continued Kroyer. “Jason has worked here a little over six months and Josh now for just over a month and both boys are extremely knowledgeable. They were well trained and well raised young individuals. I don’t know if it’s their Martinsville upbringing or if it’s related to the college program that they went through. I met both of their families. They have fine families. We really appreciate having them out here.
“They’re both 20 years old which is extremely young to be in professional motorsports but their commitment is unparalleled.”
So how big is the Martinsville race to these four transplants? Think Daytona 500 big, and you’ve got it.
“This is my Daytona,” says Travis Sharp. “I’d rather win this race than I would any other race. I ran there so many times. They’ve got the big Late Model shows. They have 120 or 130 cars every year trying to make it and that’s the one race I’d like to win with a Late Model let alone in the Jasper Engines Dodge. “We tested and we went fast there and that means a lot by itself. That’s the one race I’d like to win more than any other.”
Gravely adds, “I look at Martinsville and I’d like to give Martinsville Speedway a new nickname and we’ll call it The Crib. Winning the race at California Speedway was big but where I come from I’d really, really like to win at The Crib. Not only is Martinsville my home town but if you ask a lot of fans and a lot of employees like myself, Martinsville is just good racing. You can put it right up there with Bristol.”
“Naturally I want us to run the best that we can everywhere we go but at Martinsville it would mean a lot to me to see us run really good there,” confides Josh Hypes “It kind of shows that we can come all the way out here but we still love what we do and we can run good.”
“You want to win every race but for me especially, that’s the race I want to win the most,” says Jason Watkins. “That’s where I’m from and I want to be able to go back to those guys in my home town and say, ‘Hey, we beat you all’. You want to do your best every race and you want to win every single race, of course. But of all the races that’s one of the ones that I want to win the most.”
How deep is Watkins’ commitment? Very deep, at least that’s what one can infer from his recent off-weekend activities, when he went home last weekend to marry his hometown sweetheart, Shannon Nicole Thomas. Shortly after the couple’s nuptials Watkins, buried with work at Kroyer Racing Engines, returned to Vegas with his bride so he could get to work early Monday morning.
“Their commitment is unparalleled,” says Kroyer of his employees’ enthusiasm. “Jason just got married over the weekend, three days ago and was back at work on Monday morning with his new bride from Martinsville to make sure he get motors ready for the Orleans Racing team for the upcoming weekend.”
“It’s hard to take off work,” said the quiet Watkins. “Martinsville is this weekend so last weekend was an off time for us. I got married more or less when it was convenient for work, which is probably not the best thing to do. But you’ve got to get stuff done. It’s great. I’m glad to get back here and glad to be at work.”
Asked why he didn’t wait a week and get married at Martinsville Speedway during a break in the Kroger 250 activities Watkins blushed as he replied, “Well, she’s not all into racing like I am.”